Film

In Praise Of ‘John Wick’, Angry Keanu Reeves, And The Intensely Gritty Action Movie

'John Wick: Chapter 2' lives up to its legacy.

John Wick: Chapter 2 just opened in cinemas around Australia, despite having been out in the US for months now. It wasn’t caught up in distribution hell because of censorship issues. Nor were we denied it’s gunsmoke-scented kiss due to some legal foofaerah. No, we didn’t get it because people didn’t think we wanted it.

John Wick is one of those films that many of you have probably been badgered about by now. Have you seen John Wick? You know what’s really good that you’d totally like? John Wick. Hey why haven’t you see John Wick yet? “SHUT UP”, you yell, promising you’ll go and finally see John Wick.

The 2014 Keanu Reeves comeback vehicle is a very serviceable, ridiculously enjoyable, unashamedly B-grade action film which plays less like a revenge flick, and more like exploitation cinema on steroids. John Wick knows exactly what it is — a film about a man who loses his dog to some thugs, and then goes on a roaring rampage of revenge, because dogs are the best. 

In John Wick, we’re subjected to a film that is utterly classless, but totally aware of how classless it is; it takes place in the blingiest, skeeviest, yet most polished nightclubs, and it’s filled with tacky cars and tackier music, as though it’s a parody of early 2000s-era Jason Statham flicks.

It’s like a hamburger — grotty, handheld food of the people — made with the finest wagyu beef and bread spun by artisans. Every fatty, greasy ingredient in John Wick is lovingly crafted by giggling legends who love what they do, and are clearly having a blast doing it. Deeply earnest performances from the supporting cast — namely Willhem Dafoe, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, Lance Reddick and Alfie Allen — then add weight to the debris flung around in Keanu Reeves’ glorious, shimmering orbit. 

John Wick: Chapter 2 brings back much of the supporting cast of the first outing, adding Lawrence Fishburne to the mix (seeing him and Reeves on-screen together elicited a squeal from the entire crowd). The film also brings Ruby Rose into the fold as Ares, a mute assassin.

This is one of Rose’s many recent roles as Sassy Tatooed Action Sidekick and it just doesn’t feel as strong as you might hope. Without space to develop any complexity, the decision for her character to be mute feels almost clumsily disrespectful — i.e. this character is so two dimensional, why even bother writing lines for her. Hopefully the threequel comes with a complex, capable, fun woman to run Wick ragged.

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John Wick ended with John and his new dog — an extremely cute pitbull he rescued — heading off into the sunset. John Wick: Chapter 2 begins with the man who helped him bail from his life as an assassin calling in a debt. John says no, everything explodes, and John is yanked back out of retirement.

This takes him to Italy for the first third of the film, where we’re subjected to grimy, bleached eurotrash rave music and a bit of a slog; it’s almost an hour of ponderous setup and John glaring at bodyguards from across immaculately festooned piazzas. But once this is dispensed with, we’re left with an absolute joy to behold. I won’t spoil the specifics, but to say John gets outnumbered in John Wick: Chapter 2 is a gross understatement. There’s one fight scene in particular which intercuts three separate fightscenes at such a breakneck pace it left the audience cheering.

It’s like a parody of early 2000s-era Jason Statham flicks.

Part of what makes John Wick: Chapter 2 (and its wonderful predecessor) so cathartic is the personal history of its star. The various struggles in Keanu Reeves’ personal life are well-documented and often discussed. Reeves was abandoned by his father, he supported his sister through a decade-long battle with cancer, he’s tragically lost friends, a daughter and his partner. Though it’s always somewhat fraught reading too much of a star’s personal life into their films, Reeves has been open about how he deals with grief by pouring himself into his work, and channelling money towards causes he cares about. Watching Reeves kick the shit out of bad guys in such polished films — and even watching footage of Reeves training for said films and talking with the press — it’s evident how much of a release this is for him.

After the passing of his wife, Liam Neeson threw himself into Taken, and a slew of other gritty action films involving months of physical training and a strenuous press tour. I’m not being so glib as to claim making these films fixes anything, but it would sure as hell provide an exhilarating distraction.

Maybe we love John Wick (and now John Wick: Chapter 2) because they’re a visceral (though fictionalised) answer to the question “I wonder how Keanu Reeves is doing”, a question regularly brought to the surface thanks to the Sad Keanu meme, and regular viral articles about his litany of personal misfortunes. Given how he’s always been so perfect in cheesy but well-made action films (Speed, Point Break, The Matrix), it’s deeply edifying to see him taking what he’s good at and put a gritty, joyful, bloody spin on it. So how is Keanu doing? Based on his performances in both, and based on the totally jubilant responses from fans and critics… I’d say he’s doing alright.

John Wick: Chapter 2 is a big, angry, joyous sequel that more than earns its place alongside its predecessor, and is (finally) out in select cinemas nationwide.

Paul Verhoeven is host of Steam Punks on ABC3, and host of the weekly gaming podcast 28 Plays Later. He tweets from @PaulVerhoeven.